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Obverse of Wass, Molitor & Co. Fifty Dollars     Reverse of Wass, Molitor & Co. Fifty Dollars


1852 Five Dollars 
1852 Ten Dollars 

1855 Ten Dollars 
1855 Twenty Dollars 
1855 Fifty Dollars 

Count Samuel C. Wass and Agoston P. Molitor were Hungarian compatriots during their native country’s war for independence. Both had acquired considerable practical knowledge of mining and all its ramifications at the celebrated School of Mines of Germany, and they had subsequently worked the mines in Hungary before they were exiled by the Austrians. Wass emigrated to California in October 1850; Molitor in 1851, having traveled there via London.

Upon arriving in California, Wass spent three months exploring the mines of the gold regions. The detailed report of his findings was published in the Alta California in January 1851, which gives one of the finest and most accurate accounts of the California gold-mining districts and the states geological formations published up to that time.

In October 1851, Wass and Molitor established an assaying office on Montgomery Street below Bush in San Francisco. Evidently one of their clients was Adams & Co., the largest express company at that time, for whom they assayed and stamped ingots (see section on Adams & Co.). Business was good and in November the firm removed to Naglee’s fireproof building on the southwest corner of Merchant and Montgomery Streets. Their equipment was procured from London and the United States and was of the highest quality. Wass’s knowledge of mining, chemistry, and mineralogy combined with Molitor’s ability at assaying, smelting, and refining created one of the finest assaying firms in California. One of the drawing cards of this firm was that they paid off their depositors in 48 hours instead of the eight days usually required by the United States Assay Office.

As early as April 1851, great inconvenience was experienced in the financial community of San Francisco. No private mints were operating, and the United States Assay Office was issuing only the cumbersome $50 slugs, which were discounted up to 5 percent when making change. In the same issue of the Herald (November 25, 1851) in which Wass, Molitor & Co. announced their 48-hour services, the following editorial appeared:

It will be seen from the announcement of Wass, Molitor & Co. that the
public have a prospect of being relieved from any great addition to the
torrent of cumbrous slugs that has for the last nine months been inundating
the country.

The Herald also mentioned that it was too bad that the firm did not also mint their own coins with which to repay depositors.

Perhaps it was this suggestion that prompted Wass, Molitor & Co. to obtain dies for coinage in 1851. At the same time, the city merchants had been appealing to the United States Assay Office to issue smaller denominations, but Moffat’s requests for such authority were rejected.

A close look at the obverse of their $10 issues of 1852 reveals that the last digit, probably a “1,” had been drilled out of the original die and a “2” plugged into its space. This variety is very rare and indicates that Wass, Molitor & Company definitely planned to issue these pieces in 1851. Why they waited until 1852 is not known for certain, but while they were redrilling the $10 pieces they began issuing $5 specimens on January 6, 1852.

The new coins were eagerly received. In a letter to Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin, John L. Moffat lamented that Wass, Molitor and Company’s coins were going at 2 to 3 percent premium over the equivalent Assay Office coinage. An editorial in the Herald pointed out that Wass, Molitor & Co.’s coins were twenty-thousandths less pure but were four and nine-tenths thousandths heavier than the U. S. coinage. They were, therefore, actually worth $5.04 when presented at the mint for their gold value. Some $7,000 to $8,000 worth were issued daily with Wass, Molitor & Co. charging a reasonable seigniorage of 2 ¾ percent, the same as the United States Assay Office.

Approximately a week later, the firm issued $10 pieces. Evidently the reverse dies were obtained from Dubosq & Co. as they appear to be identical. Moffat & Co., operating for the United States Assay Office, also coined issues in 1852. Evidently these issues filled the monetary needs of the area for some time as no Wass, Molitor & Co. coins were struck bearing 1853 or 1854 dates.

Two new obverse dies for Wass, Molitor $10 specimens were made, with both being stored for use in the event of another emergency. Sure enough, during 1854 and 1855, the United States Branch Mint was forced to close intermittently for lack of proper acids to refine gold dust and copper alloy. During a particularly long layoff of coining operations in March 1855, a group of prominent bankers petitioned Wass, Molitor & Co. again to supply the city with gold coins. The latter replied on March 24 that they would comply with the banker’s wishes within the week.

An unused $10 die of 1852 was probably altered to stamp the date 1855, and was subsequently used to produce $10 pieces. Later, $20 and $50 coins were issued. The $50 pieces, although not very beautiful in appearance, were eminently acceptable. As the only round $50 gold pieces issued in California, they found acceptance elsewhere and circulated in other parts of the United States. Evidently, their round shape and the availability of lower denominations made them more acceptable than the earlier $50 slugs of the U. S. Assay Office. The Alta California reported the $38,000 of these fifties and twenties were produced a day.

There was some question as to the true value of these new coins, so Wass requested an assay be taken by the Branch Mint, which subsequently pronounced them of true value within the provisions of the coinage law. Ironically, the assayer who wrote this reply was another Hungarian, Agoston Haraszthy, who later joined Wass and Molitor in another assaying operation.

Wass, Molitor & Co. closed down their operation soon after the 1855 issues were distributed, for the 1856-1857 San Francisco Directory lists the assaying firm of Wass, (Karoly) Usznay & Co. as operating during 1856 and1857. Haraszthy replaced Molitor as partner in this firm, as the latter had left California for London in 1856.

Wass also left the vicinity for a time, leaving Haraszthy and Usznay in charge of operations. The pair were soon engaged in speculations that brought disaster to the firm and forced it to suspend operations. Molitor returned late in 1858, but by the time he had returned, his fortune had vanished.

In January, 1859, Molitor had started again in the assaying business, this time with his third son, Stephen. They operated on Commercial Street opposite the United States Branch Mint. By January, a “Molitor Bros.” were running an assay office in Unionville, Montana. Usznay purchased a silver mine in Lower California near La Paz, and Haraszthy retired to Sonoma where he grew grapes and bred cattle.

--Reprinted with permission of the author from Donald H. Kagin's, "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States", copyright 1981, Arco Publishing, Inc. of New York.

Images courtesy of Early American History Auctions, Inc.

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Sources and/or recommended reading:
"Walter Breen's Complete Encyclopedia Of U.S. And Colonial Coins" by Walter Breen

"Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States" by Donald H. Kagin